On 10 September UNHCR announced in a joint statement with the African Union (AU) and the Government of Rwanda that an agreement had been reached for the evacuation of refugees and asylum seekers currently held in detention centres in Libya. Up to 500 people will be transferred on a voluntary basis to Rwanda where they will be assisted by the three parties. The statement explains that some refugees and asylum seekers might be granted the option to resettle to a third country, while others may be assisted to return their home countries if conditions on the ground were to allow that. Evacuation flights are expected to start in the coming weeks.
East Africans in Libya
The initial resettlement group will reportedly include 500 East African refugees and asylum seekers from Sudan, Eritrea, and Somalia. More than 115,000 people from East Africa are estimated to be in Libya, many of whom are fleeing persecution, economic distress and instability at home. By September 2019, East Africans made up almost half the total population of refugees and asylum seekers in Libya – 45% of the 47,879 UNHCR registered refugees and asylum-seekers in Libya.
There has been a decrease in the number of East Africans crossing from Libya to Europe, yet the journey to and through Libya has become increasingly unsafe. To reach Libya, East Africans must travel along exceedingly dangerous migration routes through Sudan. More than 15% of refugees and migrants travelling north from East Africa were reportedly kidnapped last year, and many report witnessing or experiencing protection abuses particularly in Sudan. Once in Libya, there are limited options to leave the country, and many East Africans are shown to experience repeated violence at the hands of smuggling and trafficking rings. Kidnappings, robberies, forced labour, physical and sexual abuse and other severe human rights abuses are commonly reported to target refugees and migrants from East Africa.
Only 18% of East Africans in Libya are recognized asylum seekers or refugees. The lack of options for legal pathways for migration and asylum push many East Africans towards Libya in hopes of reaching Europe to lodge an asylum claim. However, refugees, asylum seekers and migrants find it difficult to leave Libya, and access to protection or legal pathways remains severely limited.
Refugees and asylum seekers are known to face harsh conditions even after receiving refugee status from UNHCR. They are often exposed to a lack of basic services, physical and psychological abuse, and detention that sometimes lasts for over a year. East Africans, and Eritreans in particular, are disproportionately represented in detention facilities, representing 98 per cent of the 3,930 refugees and asylum seekers officially reported in detention in June 2019 (3,898 East African refugees and asylum seekers, including 2,589 Eritreans, 614 Sudanese, 496 Somalis).
These considerations underline the extreme sense of urgency that is needed to find a solution for those stuck in detention in Libya and mean that, on the one hand, the new deal to evacuate refugees and asylum seekers to Rwanda could be a welcome step in that direction. On the other hand however, one can voice serious concerns about existing evacuation mechanisms, the lack of details provided about the new deal’s practical implementation, and Rwanda’s track record hosting refugees and asylum seekers.
Through the desert and back
The thorny issue of evacuation from Libya has been on the agenda of humanitarian agencies for almost two years. Since late 2017 UNHCR and the government of Niger have partnered on a scheme similar to the one now being proposed, the Emergency Transit Mechanism (ETM), under which 2900 refugees have been evacuated to Niamey. Implementation of the mechanism has been difficult and although many have been able to be resettled to western countries, a large number of evacuees remain in the newly constructed Hamdallaye facility close to Niamey in conditions that are clearly better than those faced in Libya, but far from optimal for someone who has faced multiple levels of trauma. Sources close to the matter have informed MMC that some of those evacuated in the initial waves are still waiting to be resettled, which has led to sporadic protests in Niamey and Hamdallaye, including an incident on 20 June, World Refugee Day, in which protesters attacked UNHCR vehicles and pillaged the facility’s supplies. Apart from operational difficulties in Niger, the political reality in Europe does not favour large scale evacuations of African refugees which has led to slow processing by European and other countries, as pointed out by Human Rights Watch.
The many issues facing the mechanism notwithstanding, UNHCR has been seeking to expand it to another African country willing to host some of the world’s most vulnerable. While it is unclear when talks with Rwanda started, there have been frequent interactions at the highest levels in recent months. Rwandan President Kagame was at the AU Summit in Niamey in July and at the G7 Summit in Biarritz in August. Both fora did not have a migration specific focus but could have served as perfect platforms for exchange on a future deal on evacuation and resettlement. Talks may have been ongoing for longer than that. As early as April 2019, AU Commissioner Faki, AU President Al Sisi and Rwandan President Kagame met at an AU Troika on Libya.
The Rwandan government was not the only country being considered for an extension of the Niger mechanism. Burkinabe authorities were courted for a long time by UNHCR and European embassies to join neighbouring Niger in evacuation efforts. As early as December 2017 an EU project document mentions the potential of including Burkina Faso in the mechanism. Various UNHCR country updates have mentioned these ongoing talks that broke down for a reason that is not specified. It is possible that the tense security situation in Burkina Faso and the issues that ETM Niger has faced since the beginning played into this.
Apart from the negotiations behind the Rwanda deal, it is important to look at events on the ground that preceded it. An airstrike just before midnight on July 2nd on the Tajoura Detention Centre outside Tripoli during which at least 53 refugees and migrants, among them several children, were killed, led to a public outcry about the plight of those that are caught in the crossfire of Libya’s civil war. The fact that several weeks before the bombing, on May 7th, a near-hit of the centre by another airstrike aimed at a nearby ammunitions factory did not lead to an immediate relocation of the refugees and migrants held at Tajoura, implies that their safety was never considered a serious issue. As argued in an article published by the European Council on Foreign Relations, the EU funding to the Libyan coast guard, already controversial before the bombing, directly linked Brussels’ migration policies to the catastrophic event, since refugees and migrants intercepted by this coastguard usually end up in these detention centres. Tajoura was thus a new low in the increasingly long list of deadly consequences of EU migration policies in recent years. Against this backdrop, the newly negotiated deal with Rwanda, which in early reporting was said to be financed by the EU, has the potential to showcase the capacity for rapid response after the tragedy of Tajoura and, more importantly, the humane side of the EU’s migration policies. A similar narrative was developed following CNN’s publication of now infamous images of slavery in Libya in November 2017, after which European heads of state, under diplomatic leadership of French President Macron, hurried to call for the evacuation of refugees and asylum seekers from Libya.
Vincent Cochetel, UNHCR Special Envoy for the Central Mediterranean Situation, initially confirmed that funding would mainly come from the EU. Rwandan government officials on their part have stressed that the deal was not transactional in any way. Given the political sensitivity surrounding Libyan evacuations and the EU’s deep involvement in the Niger mechanism both in terms of funding and resettlement options, it is hard to imagine that there has been no involvement in negotiating and commitment to funding this deal. Such involvement would be inherently linked to the EU’s policy to outsource asylum processing to the African continent while at the same time upholding the image of aiding those most in need.
Whatever the level of EU involvement may be, the deal is a big win for Rwanda. Rights organisations and EU reports have flagged significant concerns with the human rights situation in the country. An EU report from June formulated serious concerns about Rwanda’s human rights track record stating that, while progress had been made on social and economic rights, “the human rights situation in the country remained largely unchanged with continued reports of serious violations of civil and political rights”. The findings of the report were later dismissed by President Kagame as being “ridiculous”. A Human Rights Watch summary of events of 2018 in Rwanda formulated serious concerns about issues such as freedom of expression, arbitrary detention and torture.
Rwanda’s experience in hosting refugees provides further reason for concern. In February 2018, Rwandan police fired live ammunition at a group of Congolese refugees that were protesting in Karongi against a cut in food rations in the Kiziba refugee camp. According to Human Rights Watch, at least 12 refugees were killed. Results of an official investigation by authorities have yet to be released. A second example dates further back and involves similar plans for relocation as those currently on the table. Between 2013 and 2017, Israel relocated almost 4000 Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers to Rwanda and Uganda, as part of its controversial voluntary departure policy.
The voluntary nature of these departures has been questioned by many, mostly based on the fact that asylum seekers not signing up for relocation faced detention at Israel’s notorious Holot facility which was closed in 2018. Upon arrival in Rwanda, many asylum seekers faced threats from authorities while being kept in guarded hotels. Many were eventually forced to leave the country and some of them found their way back to perilous migration routes northward to eventually arrive in Libya where they faced further detention and other forms of hardship. It is thus theoretically possible that someone was forced out of Israel to Rwanda, to then be forced out of Rwanda and travel to Libya, to now be flown out of Libya back to Rwanda, most likely paid for by the EU who, several months earlier, provided strong criticism on the human rights situation in the country. This hypothetical but cynical example shows how all too often, vulnerable populations such as refugees and migrants remain the object of experimenting by Western states with the boundaries of established international conventions.
The plight of all refugees and migrants in Libya should incite world leaders to seek out a solution for those stuck in atrocious conditions in the country’s detention centres. The proposed plans to extend evacuation activities should therefore be welcomed as a positive development, since at least it will take some refugees and migrants out of Libya. Many issues remain to be resolved, however. While Rwanda has promised work permits, freedom of movement and avenues for extended stay in the country its track record in terms of human rights and hosting refugees should caution the architects of this deal about its implementation. Without very strong safeguards about these promises, this should be approached with caution. Lessons learned in Niger should be considered while rolling out the new activities. Transparency about the exact conditions of the deal and its practical implementation, including clear and realistic messaging to evacuees from the onset are paramount in order to avoid problems down the line. In addition, the extension of the mechanism should not lead to decreased pressure on western governments to find a lasting solution for all refugees and migrants stuck in Libya.
On a political level, questions arise about the amount of leverage the EU is willing to grant to countries it criticizes in its human rights reports. Deal-making on migration management in exchange for financial or political support has proven to be a disastrous policy in parts of West Africa. It is worrying to see the potential first steps of this policy spreading to Central Africa. This expansion of externalizing borders seems to further mainstream a new normal. Increasingly, the EU’s asylum processing is taking place on the African continent, far away from Europe’s borders. This will neither help achieve the morally ambiguous goal of stopping migration flows, nor will it be beneficial to those that this policy claims to help. What it will do however, is bolster the image of Rwanda to the outside world and fulfilling its long-term objective of political normalisation.
 In 2017, over 17,000 people from East Africa arrived by sea into Europe. In 2018, this was just over 5,300, and by September 2019 East African arrivals had dropped to 302.
 Of 115,000 estimated East Africans in Libya, 22,351 were registered as refugees and asylum seekers according to UNHCR by September 2019 (12,167 Sudanese, 6,605 Eritrean and 2611 Somali, and 968 Ethiopians).